This piece was published in the Pasadena Star-News on June 7, 2009.
He struggled with the shovel and my husband offered to help. He declined, intent on his task, wanting to do it himself. He was giving up so much and this was just one more piece of the life he was about to leave behind.
Finally, the mound of dirt was dug out and my husband dived under the tree and retrieved the desert tortoise our neighbors called “Speedy” for twenty-seven years. A few days earlier, our neighbor told us he was moving. He and his wife were both retired and ready to move, but stayed put until Wilbur’s mother passed away.
Wilbur drove daily to the nursing home to give his mother dinner. Towards the end he had to spoon the food into her mouth. Finally, she stopped eating. For Wilbur, it was another routine that came to an end.
We had moved to our home twelve years earlier, leaving our small, empty nest for a much bigger one in a neighborhood with high block walls enclosing the yard. After gardening for many years on a yard the size of a postage stamp, I now had lots of space for my tomatoes, herbs, flowers and perennials.
I spent many happy hours on the top terrace of our yard where I could observe Wilbur, a fellow gardener, meandering around his yard. My two dogs stood on their hind legs, stretching as high as they could, trying to peer over the big block wall. They yapped their heads off, trying to get his attention because he always appeared with doggie treats in hand.
When I first spotted Speedy in Wilbur’s yard, I missed the tortoises I put up for adoption many years ago. When our children were small we inherited a tortoise and took good care of her for years, registering her with the Fish and Game Department, supplementing her calcium and keeping her burrow dry on wet winter nights.
After I took in a male, nature took its course and the pair started to reproduce. Not wanting to raise hatchlings, I placed my fertile pair in the capable hands of a tortoise lover who wanted to take on that responsibility. I missed the slow but sure example of the desert tortoises. I forgot the lesson they teach us, day-by-day, of the need to slow down.
Wilbur told me he wanted to live closer to his wife’s family so they could help him take care of her. She had been chronically ill and housebound for many years. I could tell he didn’t want to leave his home, but he needed help. I told him I was sorry to see him go and offered to adopt Speedy. A spry old guy, Wilbur jumped for joy.
On that overcast day, while my husband and I watched Wilbur struggle with the shovel to unearth the shelter he built so many years ago, I knew that Speedy was soon to be displaced. Unlike Wilbur, Speedy was unaware of her displacement and didn’t know she would resume her leisurely life in a new back yard.
Two years after Wilbur moved, his wife died. He followed her a couple of years later. A family with two young children moved in next door and occasionally I retrieve a ball that flies over the block wall that separates our yards.
Speedy is still going strong. I built a burrow for her under the orange tree. She appears in the spring and forages around the yard all summer. In addition to reminding me to slow down, I also think of Wilbur when I see her and remember his devotion to his mother and wife.
My husband and I plan to stay in our house indefinitely, but we are smart enough to know that life can through curve balls and I may end up passing Speedy back over the wall to the care of the family next door. If we, and Speedy, are displaced I’ll try to take it with the grace and style Wilbur did so many years ago.
Kathleen Vallee Stein